Saturday, April 25, 2009

Rockefeller Madness

I know it’s not immediately apparent at times with all the pointed and vicious criticism I’ve written this year, but I do respect and admire Governor Paterson (when he’s not being nakedly careerist at the cost of the New Yorkers like me that he swore to serve.) -It may have been done on a Friday to take the (hot) air out of the opposition, but Governor Paterson has signed a bill that largely overturns the Rockefeller Drug Laws.

The new bill will allow for broader judicial discretion and power for judges in most non-violent felony drug cases. Under the Rockefeller reforms that became law more than 40 years ago, judges were instructed by mandatory minimum sentencing guidelines. Paterson is a Democrat, so the new law he proposes also calls for millions of dollars to be spent on drug treatment programs, -something I’ll comment on in a later post when I hear more details.

There is the usual outcry from Social Conservatives in upper New York State: that Democrats, Liberals, and commie-gremlin-socialists in Albany are trying to bring the state and by extension the nation to a situation of abject lawlessness. They are already citing this as the first step towards people blowing marijuana smoke in the faces of State Troopers who pull them over, or pregnant women shooting heroine and other apocalyptic nonsense.

Social Conservatives always fear that any deregulation, or legalization, or decriminalization of drug policy or drug law means increases in socially corrosive behavior or related criminal offenses.

I have to ask what have the Rockerfeller Drug laws (with their arbitrary strictures on amounts determining progressive levels of criminal intent etc.) really accomplished?

We have bigger, more overcrowded and curiously, more costly prisons. Yet for those outside government, like contractors serving the prison industry, it is more profitable than ever. The growth of the penitentiary industrial complex has created a weird and influential lobby that supports the expansion of prisons over policies of interdiction and other positive societal construction like the expansion of education.

America is ever more in the business of warehousing criminals, increasingly due to the draconian state drug laws across the nation. Addressing whether these laws are “too tough,” or even appropriate speaks to a deeper philosophical issue in Western civilization of whether punishment is a deterrent to criminal acts at all. In my experience it hardly ever is. People who do illegal things, whether it be speeding on the New England Thruway, murdering their spouses, or cooking their own crystal Meth are doing it because they think they are not going to get caught. I don’t avoid drugs because they are illegal, I don’t do drugs because I think they are dangerous to my health and mental well being in the long run. Very few people have ever committed a crime with the certainty of jail as an inevitability in their minds, again, they generally commit crimes when they think they can get away with it. The value of criminalizing drug use then, only has incarceration and its removal of offenders from society as a certain and desirable goal... maybe. The funny thing is, all of the Conservatives I personally know (like the majority of Liberals by the way), smoke pot on occasion. All of them have tried Cocaine. None of them think they should be in jail, and I agree.

I often hear the argument, “… but if I were like a dealer, I should definitely be in jail.”
To which I usually respond, “So the person who sold you the drugs should go to jail, but not you, yourself?”

It’s this kind of hypocrisy that makes the out of control drug trafficking violence in towns along Texas-Mexican borders inevitable, and it’s this kind of hypocrisy that made the Rockefeller Drug laws possible. The nation wants drugs to go away, but wants to ignore the fact that it is the people’s demand that makes the world drug trade possible. It’s interesting that so called Blue Dog Democrats in New York and upstate Conservatives feel so entirely differently when it comes to guns. They maintain gun ownership as an issue of personal liberty, the consequences of its abuse a matter of acceptable collateral damage in a free society.
While I have professed my love of guns repeatedly on this blog, it is on this point that Social Conservatives and I are united in our hypocrisy, -on entirely different issues. I think Gun laws are not nearly tough enough. I’d like to see the equivalent of Rockefeller laws for guns… knowing damn well that anyone breaking those gun laws is not going to be deterred by the punishment, self-convinced that they will get away with it… but it will take them off the streets.

Interestingly, every single one of my aforementioned friends and associates irrespective of political affiliation, drinks alcohol regularly, -and occasionally to scheduled, planned excess. The contrived criminal differentiation between Alcohol versus other drugs is an enormous matter for yet another post. Sorry.

As someone who is largely Liberal on the issue of drugs and the broader issue of drug criminalization; I am daunted by the idea of uniform codes and regulations. While I have largely supported drug use as an individual right for most of my life, I have to admit that like Social Conservatives, I too am worried about what an absolute legalization of all drugs would do, at least in the case of one particular drug. I grew up in the South Bronx in the 1970s and 80s when the Crack epidemic literally engulfed neighborhood after neighborhood, incinerating the poor and working classes across 5 boroughs in a linear progression like a slow burning cigarette. I don’t think I have ever seen any drug that destroyed a human being’s moral center and devastated their personhood like Crack Cocaine. I remember one kid I grew up with, who tried it on a Friday night and was selling his TV and all his belongings on Monday morning as I was going to school. He was in jail by the following Wednesday. While he has been off of drugs for close to 15 years now, his life was hopelessly derailed by the drug’s incursion into his life and the punitive consequences of all the crime he committed to support his drug use; something he never imagined would turn into such a self-destructive habit. I don’t think the Rockefeller Drug laws did anything to stop or correct this man’s behavior; but did much to ruin his life and make any “correction” impossible.

Ultimately, Drug laws and their support systems and programs cost money that should be spent elsewhere in society. The federal posture of interdiction and prevention that President Nixon initially supported like Operation Intercept have to be completely rethought and engineered to be applicable on a functioning personal level. What ultimately killed the Crack Cocaine epidemic in New York City was information. Even Rudolf Giuliani repeatedly asserted, as both an Associate Attorney General and as a Mayor, that information and education about drug abuse was the most effective weapon in preventing drug addiction.

Opponents of Governor Paterson’s courageous act on Friday say that non-violent drug offenses will now be seen as a public health issue, rather than just a criminal justice matter.




Jack Jodell said...

Gov. Paterson's action seems like a pragmatic one to me. And, while drugs like crack does induce other illegal behaviors in addicts, it always amazes me how quickly government is to pursue and prosecute street crime (of a blue collar nature), while turning a blind eye to the actually costlier white collar crime going on in corporate board rooms every single day.

All I can say is, regardless of his faults, I hope you New Yorkers will return Paterson to office. A Governor Rudy Giuliani would be a sickening disaster for your state and the whole nation. The last thing any of us need is for that dishonest, pompous, egomaniacal and fraudulent buffoon to be restored to a position of national prominence.

SJ said...

I certainly think it makes more sense than locking up entire generations for carrying too much pot, etc.
But even Giuliani admitted programs and eductaion were the answer... then reversed himself in the mid to late 90s.
I hope Paterson remains as well, warts and all, but it doesn't look good for him as of now. New Yorkers are just as irrational as Americans in other regions when you get down to it. We're a country that "wants to lose weight, while eating whatever it wants" and we'll sometimes sign on with whatever politician tell us that's exactly what we can have if they're elected. I really do miss Eliot Spitzer at times like these. A real shame about him.
As for Giuliani, I seriously doubt his chances at anything, anymore. He has enormous skeletons in his closet that are not so secret after the Republican primaries.